Al-Hugrain: Yemen’s Treasure Trove

Published on 1 March 2012 in Report
Saleh Al-Batati (author)

Saleh Al-Batati

Houses on big rocks in Al-Hugrain

Houses on big rocks in Al-Hugrain

When you attempt to look over this ancient town, you are forced to look up because its high buildings perch on the side of a mountain. This strategic position has made Al-Hugrain appear as though it was ascending to heaven.

It looks like an island when it rains, when it is surrounded by water. The free-standing structure of the city, with its outspoken shape, attracts all the attention in the vicinity.

The town’s houses appear to have been randomly stacked. In reality, it is a unique design, part of a complex geometric system of bulwarks designed to protect the town from enemies.

Al-Hugrain lies at the northern gateway to Hadramout’s Wadi Doan. It is located amidst a high mountain and it overlooks two large, fertile valleys - Wadi Doan and Wadi Al-Ghaber.

It is a historic town, with age-old relics dating back to the Himyarite era. Dammoon’s relics hail back to Imro Al-Qais, a great poet and a prince of the Kinda kingdom, and Dammon was mentioned in his lines, referring to the area he lived in.

 It is a town full of dams and large reservoirs which irrigate the farming areas. The town’s economy was heavily dependent on agriculture, where crops, wheat and palm trees spread across its reaches.

It was important not only in the pre-Islamic period, but also in the Islamic period itself. In the fourth century AH, Al-Hugrain  was a residence of Al-Emam Al-Muhager  Ahmed Bin Eisa, the founding father of the Sufi religious sect; he had emigrated from Al-Basra in Iraq to settle in Al-Hugrain. There is a place called the room of Al-Muhager, where he would pray, recite, and write. The room has become a shrine for visitors, who perform religious ceremonies there.

In the town center, there is an area for bazaars and a public arena for entertainment on special occasions like Eid.

During such celebrations, people congregate to listen to poetry recited using a technique called ‘zamel’, and also sing and perform folk dances as a gentle breeze blows across the city.

Al-Hugrain’s tremendous, tall buildings are made of very simple substances. They were constructed using brick, straw and mud. Masons  worked around the clock tirelessly, and women too took part in the construction of these buildings. 

Most of these buildings are semi-detached, with wide terraces on the roofs which are used for picnics and sleeping areas. The materials used were clay, plasterwork, and lime, especially on the roof  to decorate its facade.

Even the materials used on the buildings’ canopies were quite simple: fronds and palms leaves, woven and interlocked. The beams and columns used to bear the ceiling of every single room is made of hewn stone.

The four-story buildings are 90 feet tall, with wooden windows of geometric designs. If the skyscrapers of the modern day have been built in the United States, skyscrapers of the past were built on a mountain rim in Al-Hugrain.

One might wonder what allows these skyscrapers to endure the weather and conditions and maintain its tradition though decades of neglect. Dogged determination and persistence, as well as the exertion of enormous efforts are behind the firmness and rigidity of these towering buildings.

Landmarks in Al-Hugrain

In the city’s suburbs, there are prominent landmarks, among which is Al-Quza. It is a small village with ancient monuments which date back thousands of years, with Himyarite inscriptions on the memorial stones.

There are several springs and pools that irrigate farming areas. Another prominent landmark, Seela, a small village in the south of Al-Hugrain, is situated on a mountain range which extends to Wadi Doan. Fragments of ancient pottery which have been found there attest to village’s heritage as a historic landmark.   

Tourists have flocked to this area since the announcement of Al-Hugrain as a cultural and historical protectorate in 2006.

Although it is a major landmark, the flow of tourists to the area significantly decreased as a result of acts of terrorism which took place at a turn-off leading to Al-Hugrain on January 18th 2008.

Inhabitants, scholars and dignitaries in Al-Hugrain strongly condemned the acts of terrorism. However, now that things have begun to return to normal, tourists have begun to trickle into the city. Security checkpoints surround the city, and policemen have demonstrated their readiness to protect tourists.    

Traditional buildings at risk

Preservationists are aware of the great importance of the city. They are concerned about the future of these high–rise brick buildings. Like Zabeed in Hodeida, Al-Hugrain is in jeopardy on account of the expansion of cement and stone houses. This is regarded as a real and serious threat that is out of sync with the rest of the town. A lack of oversight of the town’s long-standing traditions may lead to old buildings becoming unsustainable; tough decisions remain essential to maintaining the integrity of the traditional buildings.

On the governmental level, a special committee must be formed to meet the needs and requirements of spire-like buildings. A rescue plan should be carried out, one which would include the renovation of buildings and enforced decisions to block the rapid expansion of cement houses.